Our company served as a quiet witness to the surging changes of history around it. The delivery wagons became trucks. Automobiles, including Preston Tucker’s prototype, sped increasingly faster past its doors. B-24 bomber planes took their first test flights out of Willow Run over its roof before taking off for Europe to win World War II. The trains roared past, and then came less frequently. Other businesses grew and declined and sometimes disappeared. Through it all, Michigan Ladder Company has survived and thrived by stepping up to the challenges of every new decade throughout its history.
On December 4th 1901, at the beginning of a new century, three men formed the Michigan Ladder Company with several thousand dollars of their own money and help from the City of Ypsilanti. The city agreed to provide land for five years, at a great location near the Huron River and the railroad depot, if the principals invested $3000 and agreed to hire at least ten men for five years. The three founders, Melvin Lewis, A.G. Huston, and Edgar S. Geer, became the first officers of the company and its driving force, although they knew precious little about making ladders other than Lewis holding a newly issued patent. They met the challenge, though, and the land at 12 East Forest Avenue and the facility they built there became the company’s permanent location. Shares of ownership changed hands, but Melvin Lewis remained the company’s president for the next 45 years and witnessed many changes. The horse drawn wagons used for deliveries were replaced by railroad cars and then trucks. The original wood clad building served its purpose well was added onto for needed storage and assembly lines 25 times. Power first was generated by a railroad boiler, and then electricity was brought into the building. Ladders, initially the only product produced, were joined by toys, ironing boards, boats, and ping pong tables. Eventually production returned to only ladders; climbing upward became what Michigan Ladder Company did best.
Melvin Lewis’s patent for an extension ladder with the first automatic locking catch set the standard for safety that has ever since been a benchmark for innovation in the company. Simple ladders were adapted to meet consumer needs, such as the pointed fruit-picking ladder designed to lodge between tree limbs, so popular in orchards in western Michigan. Ladders of varying heights and with unique features were developed to meet and exceed industry standards. While wooden ladders have continuously been made individually and by hand in the green wooden building by Frog Island, the line also has expanded to include ladders made of aluminum and fiberglass.
The ladder business was originally a seasonal market, with production lasting only ten months a year, so Michigan Ladder (which prided itself in never having to lay off workers even during the Great Depression) made other products as well. Soon the lumber from the surrounding area was being fashioned into ironing boards and “kiddie” toys and boats and even a portable diving board. No doubt its most famous sideline was the ping pong table named “The Detroiter.” These tables went around the world, literally, when the United States Navy bought hundreds for shipboard entertainment. The Harlem Globetrotters likewise carried them around the nation, in four pieces each, to be set up for halftime competition. It even made the movies: “The Detroiter” that Tom Hanks’s character played on in “Forrest Gump” was made here on Forest Avenue.
Michigan Ladders have always been strong. From the quality of wood used to the larger-than-normal rivets (often painted red to emphasize strength), these ladders were built to hold anyone or anything. Early promotional photographs pictured the whole staff perched on a ladder to demonstrate its sturdiness. Even a car weighing 3,000 pounds was mounted upon a mechanic’s step ladder. In a stroke of advertising genius, the proof was in the pictures. At Michigan Ladder Company safety was a buzzword long before occupational safety came onto the scene.
There was also strength in the executive offices, where, remarkably, only three men were president over the course of a century. Melvin Lewis, without any formal training but possessed of talent for invention and the holder of numerous ladder patents, began as president in 1901 and held the office until his retirement in 1945 at the age of 79. Arthur Nissly came to work for Michigan Ladder Company in the 1930s after earning a degree in business and working for Paine Webber until the stock market crash. He brought his business acumen to the company as vice president and then president, until a heart attack at the Christmas staff party caused his death in 1967. His son, Bob Nissly (who began his career at Michigan Ladder as a youngster smoking between the lumber piles), had earned a degree in engineering and was already on the staff when he assumed the presidency in 1967 upon his father’s demise. He led the enterprise until his retirement, in 2005, after overseeing multiple expansions of the physical facility and the purchase of several other ladder companies. Bob also became a leader in consumer product safety testing on the national level. Tom Harrison became the new president upon Bob’s retirement. Strength also resides in the service of longtime employees with many working over 30 years with the company. The workforce has had a longevity that mirrors the extension ladders they make.
For the first four decades, company salesmen sold ladders to individual retail operations in an ever-widening area, including, eventually, all of the midwestern and eastern United States. World War II brought such demand from the government that it became the sole customer for a while. After the war, distribution was switched to the wholesale market, using sales representatives. Inventories were maintained in many locations around the country and exported to Latin and South America as well as the Middle and Far East.
The list of loyal customers during the century plus that the company has been in operation includes Ford Motor Company, General Motors, United States Steel, Boeing, and Dollar General. Target store shelves are restocked by workers standing on Michigan ladders. The White House in Washington DC uses our ladders for repairs and to decorate for the holidays. Many buildings, such as the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport, were constructed with the help of the company’s ladders. Indeed, much of the nation has been built on the steps of Michigan ladders.
Technology changes rapidly, but the ladder remains a simple, essential tool. Three men recognized this in 1901 and laid the foundation for a company that would build on it. Michigan Ladder Company has made a contribution to every era with every ladder it made. It adapted to industry cycles and cultural changes and has outlasted its competition and become the oldest ladder company in the United States today. Always stepping upward has paid off for the Michigan Ladder Company and the community it has served so well.